Once again it is time for "Ask Mister Language Person," the popular biennial feature wherein we discuss the kinds of common grammatical concerns with which common people tend to encounter problems with. We'll begin with our first question:

Q: What is the difference between "criteria" and "criterion"?

A: "Criteria" is used in formal business or government communications, as in: "An insufficient criteria was utilized in the determination to store the warheads so close to the nursing home." "Criterion" is used as a name for watches costing more than a Subaru station wagon, as in: "The Rolex Criterion. For the individual who knows his parameters."

Q: My brother-in-law always says everything is a "moot point." Like, I'll say, "Dammit Earl, your dog is licking the taco dip again!" And Earl will say, "Well, I guess it's a moot point," and then he'll go back to watching Oprah Winfrey. How large a woman is she, anyway?

A: There is no way to tell.

Q: I am confused about when to use "its" and when to use "it's" in sentences such as: "My dog displays a tremendous interest in it's personal region." Is there an easy way to remember the proper rule?

A: Yes. Simply memorize this little poem, which many of us learned as children:

An "I" with a "T"

Followed by an apostrophe

With an "S" right behind

Something something is fine

Except in Leap Year, its plain to see

Something something except after "C"

(Repeat chorus)

Q: What is the correct usage of the word "appraise"?

A: "Appraise" is a word that is used when an individual is appraised of something, as in: "So then I appraised this individual that if he didn't take his foot off my wife, he would need a Boy Scout Troop to locate his teeth."

Q: In the song "Home on the Range," where it says "The skies are not cloudy all day," does that mean that the skies ARE cloudy, but not all day, or does it mean that the skies are totally cloud-free all day? Also, do the deer and the antelope play WITH each other? Or is there one play area marked "DEER" and one marked "ANTELOPE"? How could they tell?

A: To answer your question, we called up popular syndicated language guru William Safire, but his secretary told us he was "out of the country" until "Thursday."

Q: Do you think she was lying?

A: Yes.

Q: How is the phrase "by and large" used?

A: It is used in conjunction with the phrase "Louise and myself," as in: "By and large, Louise and myself prefer the won-ton soup."

Q: When should I use "imply," and when should I use "infer"?

A: Although both "imply" and "infer" belong to what word scientists, or "entomologists," call "the family of words starting with 'i' and having five letters," they are actually quite different in meaning, as is illustrated by these two sentences:

1. Jennifer implied that there was gnats in her Lavoris.

2. Jennifer inferred that there was gnats in her Lavoris.


A good way to add "sparkle" to a section of writing is to put some "literary devices" in it. The major literary devices are FACSIMILES ("as busy as a beaver"); FIGURINES OF SPEECH ("those beavers are very busy"); SOPHOMORES ("kind of like a beaver or something"); and TRAUMATIC EXPRESSIONS ("Marge has been bitten by a beaver"). Trained professional writers frequently use these devices to turn an ordinary piece of writing into a piece of writing that makes some mention of beavers. ("Calvin Klein Perfume. For the individual with the cranial capacity of a beaver.")

GOT A QUESTION ABOUT THE CORRECT GRAMMATICAL WAY OF USING A WORD PROPERLY? Write a letter to Mister Language Person, being sure to close it with the phrase "Warmest human regards."